New temporary spot for Catholic school a ‘sign of hope’ amid ongoing recovery from Maui fires

HONOLULU (OSV News) — Space for children to play. A place for them to grow. And for the many families still facing incredible hardships, a safe place to go.

When Sacred Hearts School officially moves to its new temporary location in Kaanapali on the island of Maui in a few months, it will mark the next step in recovery not just for the school community, but for the Lahaina community as well.

Sacred Hearts School was one of the hundreds of properties heavily damaged or destroyed by the deadly wildfire that devastated Lahaina last summer. Miraculously, its neighboring mother church, Maria Lanakila, was left completely unscathed.

Overcoming adversity

The school year had just begun when the historic tragedy, which also saw fires wreak havoc in other Maui towns, brought everything to a halt. But thanks to the faith, focus and determination of Principal Tonata Lolesio, groundskeeper Howard Lolesio (Tonata’s husband) and the rest of the school staff, classes resumed mere weeks after the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire.

The Lolesios acted quickly to relocate the school to Maria Lanakila’s mission church, Sacred Hearts, up the road in Kapalua — tents were raised, donation areas were established and students welcomed back with open arms.

The shells of burned houses and buildings are pictured in an aerial image of the town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui Aug. 11, 2023, after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town. (OSV News photo/Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources handout via Reuters)

Not all the children returned. The families of some were forced to relocate after the wildfire. Others who were enrolled in Sacred Hearts’ early learning center could no longer attend as the church grounds were not equipped to accommodate the center.

Still, according to Tonata Lolesio, a good number of children continued to attend Sacred Hearts, and the school has even gained new students at its Kapalua location. Almost all of the school’s faculty and staff also have stayed on.

A new beginning in Kaanapali

Now the school is looking to the future and its new campus, situated within the sprawling Kaanapali resort. Lolesio and officials with the Diocese of Honolulu emphasize that the property — which was acquired and planned with lightning speed — will be more than just a place for children to learn. It will also support the broader Lahaina community as residents continue to cope with the impact of last year’s wildfire.

Sacred Hearts School’s current setup in Kapalua is much smaller than its Lahaina footprint — in addition to the loss of its early learning center, the school also must operate out of large tents that lack air-conditioning and make do without room for children to play.

Dara Perreira, director of human resources for the diocese, and Michael Yee, a member of the diocesan finance council and a managing partner with MCYIA Interior Architecture & Design, credited Howard Lolesio with creating a space in which students could learn despite the limitations of the mission church.

“Until you see it, you don’t realize what it means to be a displaced school,” Yee told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu.

It became clear that Sacred Hearts needed to find another temporary home, and fast.

The diocese tapped Yee to join its team to search for and secure a new site for Sacred Hearts. It had to be big, with room for everything a traditional campus requires, and it couldn’t be near businesses that conflict with school environments (such as those that sell alcohol). Those mandates, as well as the need for the school to remain in west Maui, meant that options were quite limited, Yee said.

Yee added that while the diocese brought its full resources in to assist the school search effort, its intent was always to support Lolesio and the school staff as they faced their unprecedented situation — managing a school community that had experienced so much trauma while trying to put their own lives back together as well.

Collaborative efforts

In addition to the school staff and the Diocese of Honolulu, many entities came together to help find and procure the new campus within the Kaanapali resort.

The nonprofit organization Global Empowerment Mission, which arrives in communities across the globe after disasters strike to provide assistance, helped with the search for a place suitable to host a school. And GEM worked with the property owners at Kaanapali so Sacred Hearts School could lease a large portion of the site, which Yee described as right in the middle of the resort, near the golf course.

Tonata Lolesio, principal at Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina, Hawaii, on the island of Maui, is pictured in an undated photo speaking with students during an afternoon assembly at Sacred Hearts Mission Church in Kapalua. The school was temporarily relocated to the church after the wildfires of Aug. 8-9, 2023, driven by high winds, destroyed most of the school building, along with more than 2,200 other buildings there. In August 2024, the school will reopen in a new temporary location. (OSV News photo/courtesy Brian Perry)

GEM also brought in assistance from a Hawaii-based organization, Stable Road Foundation, which donated $250,000 specifically to the Hawaii Catholic Community Foundation with the intent of helping Sacred Hearts School.

(HCCF, a nonprofit corporation that helps isle parishes and schools, also has maintained several fundraising campaigns since last August’s wildfires: a general Maui relief fund, a fund for Maria Lanakila Church and Sacred Hearts School, and a tuition assistance fund for Sacred Hearts.)

The diocese also has tapped insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency monies in its rebuilding efforts.

Overall, the new Kaanapali site will cost $1.5 million for facilities that will cater to more than 250 students.

Renovations and enhancements

Sacred Hearts School’s new campus will comprise several existing buildings on the Kaanapali parcel; a separate building will continue to be occupied by its current tenants.

Yee said the commercial property spaces are being renovated to serve as classrooms, and that portable trailers will be brought in to accommodate office space, bathrooms and a counseling center. Catholic Charities Hawaii will play a role in the counseling aspect, which will also be available to the wider community in addition to the school.

Importantly, the Kaanapali campus will provide much-needed outdoor space. The new features include hopscotch and four-square grids, a half basketball court, a grassy play area and a covered seating area for lunchtime.

The site, Yee said, is actually a little bigger than Sacred Hearts was before the fire — taking into consideration the needs of the entire community.

The Kaanapali Beach Resort Association has welcomed the school “with open arms,” Yee added, recognizing its importance to families in west Maui.

The goal is to hold a grand opening for the new campus right before the new school year begins Aug. 5. Both events poignantly take place around the one-year mark from last year’s wildfire.

Countless contributions

Countless individuals and other organizations have contributed physical, emotional and monetary support to the rebuilding effort, illustrating just how important Sacred Hearts School is to Lahaina and all of west Maui.

Tuition assistance is one crucial component of the rebuilding process that has benefited from the generosity of many. HCCF has raised $1.6 million so far within a $4 million capital campaign that began in November, with the aim of wrapping up after one year, according to foundation officials.

Perreira recounted how many people involved in the recovery and rebuilding efforts have come forward with their stories of wanting to help because of how the church has played a role in their lives, whether or not they are Catholic.

Both Sacred Hearts and Maria Lanakila are “really a pillar of the community,” Yee observed.
Tonata Lolesio noted that both the school and parish have existed for more than 160 years.

“Together we really are a sign of hope,” she said.

This post New temporary spot for Catholic school a ‘sign of hope’ amid ongoing recovery from Maui fires appeared on Our Sunday Visitor.

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